Cap Comparables: Morgan Rielly, the defence market and Leafs' cap picture

Faizal Khamisa and Steve Dangle discuss Morgan Rielly's 8-year / $60m contract extension with the Maple Leafs and what it means for him, the team and the salary cap.

Morgan Rielly left money on the table.

The defencemen market absolutely exploded in the last while and, as you'll see, when Rielly lines up to the other recently signed players at his position, he comes in at a palatable value.

It's a huge win for the Maple Leafs in the immediate future, though how it ages over eight years when Rielly plays into his mid-30s could make it seem like less of a win down the road.

But that can be dealt with later -- and also, likely, in a time when the cap is rising again, hopefully at pre-pandemic levels.

Rielly is Toronto's No. 1 defenceman and here's how his $7.5 million cap hit (kicking in next season) compares to some other No. 1's who've signed long-term since the opening of free agency in October 2020.

Alex Pietrangelo 7 $8.8 million UFA signing on market
Miro Heiskanen 8 $8.45 million RFA re-signing
Seth Jones 8 $9.5 million UFA re-signing before market
Cale Makar 6 $9 million RFA re-signing
Dougie Hamilton 7 $9 million UFA signing on market
Zach Werenski 6 $9.583 million RFA re-signing
Darnell Nurse 8 $9.25 million UFA re-signing before market
Colton Parayko 8 $6.5 million UFA re-signing before market
Quinn Hughes 6 $7.85 million RFA re-signing
Charlie McAvoy 8 $9.5 million RFA re-signing, buys mostly UFA years

How many of the defencemen listed above you'd rank Rielly over is up for debate, but had he tested the UFA market it's clear Rielly could have pulled in more money. His $7.5 million is tied with Aaron Ekblad for the 18th-highest cap hit among all NHL defencemen, and Ekblad plays in tax-free Florida. Rielly's compensation is just above Kris Letang ($7.25 million signed in 2013) and a million more than Torey Krug ($6.5 million signed in 2020 as a UFA).

Viewed another way, Rielly's contract looks even better.

As we explored when Aleksander Barkov signed his big deal with the Panthers, it's important to consider the "cap hit percentage at the time of signing" when comparing deals signed over the years. Rielly's cap hit accounts for 9.2 per cent of the $81.5 million cap hit today and by that measure, he ranks 24th at his position, so a lower-end No. 1 by comparison.

The price for the here and now is a win for the Maple Leafs and the long-term implications can be dealt with as they arise. The only thing that matters for the Leafs these days is to get in position to finally get over the playoff hump that has eluded them.

But this certainly changes the calculation of how we view this team in various aspects going forward, including:

• The trade outlook. Rielly has a no-move clause throughout the deal and for this season as well. When the Leafs got off to a bumpy start -- and ahead of next week's murderers' row of opponents in Tampa, Vegas and Boston -- there was some slight panic, at least from the outside. If the Leafs were going to keep having issues starting late, with dreary play, trouble converting offence, and defending high-quality shots, would the front office feel the need to address it earlier than expected? What trade would need to be made?

In this context Rielly, as a pending UFA, was a name that would pop up as a candidate, given his uncertain future with the team. That's now off the table and he's part of this thing going forward. So whether the Leafs continue struggling in-season and seek a shakeup, or if something happens in the summer after another early exit, that big move would now have to come from somewhere else.

• The situation in net. Jack Campbell is the only other pending UFA the Leafs have who would come at a notable cost and Rielly's re-signing pinches the cap outlook for Campbell a little bit more. He's making $1.65 million right now, but has been one of the positives for Toronto early. Backup Petr Mrazek signed at $3.8 million for three years in the off-season. The better comparable for Campbell might be Cal Petersen, the 27-year-old goalie who replaced him in Los Angeles. Petersen signed for three years and a $5 million AAV and that might be the ballpark for Campbell, assuming no discount.

As it stands, Toronto has already invested $48 million in five players next season: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Rielly. That's the core, and 58.8 per cent of the cap goes to them. Add in TJ Brodie and Jake Muzzin's deals, and 71.9 per cent of the cap goes towards seven players.

Even if the cap does rise by $1 million (and even with Phil Kessel's $1.2 million of retained salary coming off the books), Toronto still would only have an estimated $6.385 million in cap room to take into the summer. That's without a Campbell extension, signing any RFAs (Ondrej Kase, Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren), or re-signing Jason Spezza again.

"Goaltender's going to be a priority for us to maintain space for and then with whatever else we've got left, Brandon (Pridham) and I go through this ad nauseum more than everybody can believe," Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said after signing Rielly. "It'll be about adapting the rest of the roster to fit in and build the best team we can."

This doesn't necessarily mean anything major needs to be done to change that outlook in-season, though. This was always going to be a defining year for these Maple Leafs -- disappoint against expectation again and all bets are off. The front office and coach would be in question, as would the core group on the ice. Another team let down and the whole Shanaplan could blow up.

So, yes, cap issues are on the horizon. How do you keep Campbell with all this, or can you find another goalie to take his place? These are problems for another day and can't really be addressed until this group takes one more crack as constructed. Management clearly communicated that was the plan coming in.

Some level of change was always coming to this roster in the summer anyway. Whether that was big change (Nylander? Marner?) or smaller change (Justin Holl? Alexander Kerfoot?) is to be determined by the team's on-ice results.

The only difference today, it appears, is that Rielly is now removed from that equation. And the cost to do it isn't egregious at all.

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